Sunday, September 18, 2011

Discovering Fragonard


The Swing, 1767
The fashioned slipper flings into the air from the force of the aristocratic lady’s body swinging in mid-air over the desiring gaze of her hidden lover. This was my surprised and pleasing introduction to the paintings of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. I am sensual and erotic by nature and so I am attracted to many of the preromantic works in Fragonard. The Swing (1767) is arguably not only his most famous painting but also a superb and exemplary representation of the Rococo art period.

One of the karmic ripples of Jennifer’s recovery from surgery recently was her mother loaned us a 48-lecture DVD series from The Teaching Company entitled A History of European Art. Delivered by Professor William Kloss, these lectures offer a detailed chronology of Art in Europe, primarily through painting but also including sculpture and architecture. Each lecture lasts between 30-45 minutes and is delivered in an objective, insightful, and often humorous flair. Dr. Kloss' style of presentation is so entertaining that it inspired Jennifer and me to dub him with the affectionate nickname of "Mr. Prissy Pants."

Lecture 38 concerns “French Art in the 18th Century” and deals predominantly with Fragonard, Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. I have always appreciated Chardin as a great ambassador of the transition from the Baroque period to the Romantic period of Art. But, Fragonard is new to me and that flying slipper perked my curiosity about his work so I decided to go beyond the lecture and do some discovery of my own.

The Rococo Movement has long been viewed as unsophisticated and second-rate in the history of Art. As a transition from the aristocratic Baroque to the more democratic Romantic and Revolutionary Art periods, it is considered “…one of the most puny styles in the brood spawned by art-historians.” (Levey, page 15) As a reaction to Baroque, Rococo often expressed frivolity and fanciful subjects. But, because of the strength of the political movements in America and France in the late 18th-century and the emphasis of the Enlightenment upon factual knowledge and liberation from the mythic and religious considerations that dominated the Renaissance, Rococo was soon deemed to be decadent and what my college art history professor called kitsch.

So, taking my professor at his word, I never focused much on the period until Professor Kloss explored Fragonard in some detail. The Rococo might not have been serious enough for the democratic times in the late-1700’s but it certainly offers much in terms of a bolder expression of Eros than I previously appreciated. Many of Fragonard’s works are filled with passion in what is depicted upon the canvass and how it is created in terms of color and light even down to the individual brush strokes. That is its primary attraction for me.

An self-portrait of Jean-Honoré Fragonard circa 1785 in the Louvre Collection.
In The Swing, Fragonard makes a representative, semi-mythic statement about romance and sexuality. Set within a womb of detailed leaves of natural vegetation, the quintessential beauty in period attire opens and exhibits herself, allowing a foot to go bare with the flinging of the slipper. She is the central focal point of the painting. She is propelled with the assistance of an aged male servant who sits in the shadows ready to pull her back for the next swing motion.

But, before he can do that, the lady’s lover enjoys a splendid view up her dress. The elderly man in the shadows cannot see the lover thanks to the shrubbery that shields him. He reaches for her in dreamy need. Their eyes are directed into one another. She is at the point of weightlessness, yet there is an energy about her dress that surpasses any other detail in the painting. This is a wonderful, carefree moment of love and desire.

The Bolt, 1778
Whereas The Swing expresses the Rococo in its attention to natural detail and human playfulness, The Bolt (1778) is an example of Fragonard’s intense and erotic energy. A man is pressing a woman against a wall with his upper body and hips. He is pressing so hard that he is on his toes, his calf muscles pronounced and presented. It is a highly provocative pose for its time.

The woman presents us with an enigma, however. Fragonard depicts her in both resistance and haste. Which is dominant in her? Both figures are reaching for the bolt on the door that will ensure their lustful privacy. But, is she reaching to stop him or to urge him on? Is he forcing himself upon her against her will or aided by her? The painting purposefully asks these questions.

Once again, Fragonard makes the woman’s dress the central and most vibrant and energetic part of the painting. The bed sheets are tossed about with an opening to large pillows in the middle. There is a fruit of some kind on a clothed stand next to the bed. Opposite that, on the floor, is a small floral arrangement. All this suggests love and romance. But, we cannot know for certain. Her hand is definitely covering the man's chin and pushing against him there. That would suggest denying him.

For me, The Bolt is more of a Romantic painting than Rococo and for that reason I see Fragonard as being fundamentally influential in art at least into the French Impressionist period. Perhaps, the best way to appreciate Fragonard’s influence is to see a detail of his brush strokes in a painting entitled Young Girl Kissing a Cat (undated). Notice the many subtle ways he uses the brush in this detail from that work. The lips and nostrils of the bare-breasted girl and the furry lump of cat are the same color, the girl’s cheek is brush-stroked so that it is not smooth but, rather, the brush thrusts toward the face of the cat which is a luscious, casual series of creamy blobs. The cat’s face possesses the same energy as the dresses of the women in the previous two paintings. Delicious.

Young Girl Kissing a Cat, undated

A clear contrast to what I consider to be two different Fragonard’s can be found in comparing his more traditional style as seen in the mythic but richly and rigidly detailed Coresus Sacrificing Himself to Save Callirhoe (1765) with a less rigid piece, Renaud in the Garden of Armida (1761) . Renaud is brushed in blobs and lingering strokes that blur many details yet create an emotional effect all its own. Coresus is Baroque and high Rococo while Renaud is pre-impressionistic.

Coresus, 1765


Renaud, 1761

Fragonard was passionate and erotic but he was also highly sensual, even in an innocent sense. No work depicts this better than Girl with Dog (1765). It is obvious from the way the girl is clothed (or unclothed, rather) and the way she playfully holds the dog between her knees that this is an innocent, almost sweet, yet highly sensual moment. The dog’s body is supported by the girl’s legs slightly above her ankles. The dog’s tail dangles in a rather provoking way. This seems sexual even by today’s standards. A sensually remarkable work for its time.
Girl with Dog, 1765
With a prodigious output of over 550 paintings, Fragonard outlived his own fame. The Rococo, and all associated with it, was rejected by art connoisseurs and historians as a relic of the aristocratic past. Revolution was in the air. The change was rapid. The Age of Reason was coming to fruition and there was little respect for the Baroque style and its frivolous though passionate prodigy. Most of Fragonard’s patrons were either guillotined or went into exile. At the time of his death in 1806 he lived in relative poverty, was considered passé, part of the frowned upon Ancien Régime, and his work was strictly criticized in the press.

But Fragonard was much more than austere Rococo. He infused many of his works with a rich emotional character that prefaced the Romantic Era of Art. A work of his decorated Jennifer’s bedroom in her teens. She recalls seeing it on her wall in that time of her life. A Young Girl Reading (1772) is one of Fragonard’s most famous works and is clearly as pre-impressionistic and it is pre-romantic. An influential work of art even if it was poo-pooed by “discerning minds” of the revolutions for liberty and freedom.

A Young Girl Reading, 1772
"Under the patronage of King Louis XV, he became the great artist of pleasure, desire and carefree enjoyment of life. He missed the connection with the classical trend that arrived after the Revolution. He died, as reported, alone and forgotten in 1806 in a cafe where, despite his poverty, he was treating himself to and ice cream as a means of recuperating from the wear and tear of the day." (Charles & Carl, page 55)


How lucky I am to live in the new discovery of previously unexplored artistic expression! It is true, I think, that Art is the highest and purest manifestation of our humanity. More so than religion or ethics or philosophy, Art attempts to express some perceived essence of its cultural world and, therefore, reveals much about humanity. Exploring this new ground for the first time is a small example of my continuing sense of wonder in life.

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